Study Guide

Disability Studies Buzzwords

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The idea of a distinction between impairment and disability really began to take hold in the 1980s, thanks to the social model (see below) of disability that emerged in Britain around this time.

Basically, this idea says that impairment refers to whatever the illness, or injury, or deformity is. So, "impairment" is located in the body. "Disability," on the other hand, is when the impaired body comes up against some kind of circumstance or environment in society that limits that body's ability to function.


Well, it's a lot simpler than it sounds, really. Here's an example: say a person is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. The paraplegia (paralysis) is the impairment. But if the person has a home that is equipped with ramps, lowered shelves, roll-in showers, etc., then in her home the person is not "disabled"… because the environment is set up so that she can do everything she wants and needs to do.

However, when that same person goes into town and finds that she cannot access a public building because there are steps rather than a ramp, then she becomes disabled… because her physical environment does not allow her body to function as she wishes. So, if impairment is a condition of the body, disability is a condition of society and of the environment.

Social Constructivism/Social Model

As we can see in the distinction that social constructivists draw between impairment and disability, the social model is built around the idea that the primary barriers to equality and freedom for "disabled" people aren't due to the illness, injury, or deformity (in other words, the "impairment"), but instead are due to, yup, social barriers.

The social environment is constructed for bodies without impairments, they argue, because of largely unrecognized prejudices against and misunderstanding of people with impairments.

Medical Model

The medical model is the Joker to the social model's Batman; it's the Doc Ock to the social model's Spidey. Because while the social model sees the environment as the source of disability, the medical model sees the body itself as the source of disability.

Basically, the idea is that the medical model is this powerful force in Western culture as a whole, not just in the field of medicine alone. The medical model increases and ensures its own power in our society, the theory goes, by trying to define who is and who isn't "normal" and then by diagnosing those it sees as abnormal as disabled or diseased in some way.

Then, after the "abnormal" person has been diagnosed by medical science, medicine gets to take power over that person in its attempts to "cure" or "fix" that "abnormal" body. Not only that: this idea also says that "normal" bodies are also shaped by the medical model as they strive to prove that they are healthy, beautiful, and fit so as not to be overtaken and "cured" by the medical model.

Hmm. Paranoia or brilliance? You make the call.

Sick Role

Basically, this is the idea that once a person has been diagnosed as sick, injured, or deformed, he will live up to that role, will play the role of helpless patient, either for the rest of his life or until the doctor pronounces him "cured."


This is the idea that there are basically only three outcomes for people with impairments who are brought into the medical model: once you're diagnosed, you're either cured by medicine, or you're covered (hidden away) by being stuck in hospitals, rehabs, nursing homes, or asylums. And, if that doesn't work, you're killed, whether by euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, or, for "defective" fetuses, by selective abortion.

Yikes. As we'll see, this last idea is one of the most controversial, especially for feminist disability scholars and right-to-die advocates.

Not a lot of fun choices there, huh? Sure, we'll take "cure" for fifty bucks, Trebek. But, sadly, for most folks, it's not that easy.

Single Stigmatic Trait

The single stigmatic trait refers to the idea that a person with an impairment becomes known only by their impairment. So, a quadriplegic may become just "that girl in the wheelchair" or a man with a visual impairment may become "that blind guy." The wheelchair and the blindness become the single stigmatic trait that erases everything else about that person; s/he becomes only the chair, only the blindness.

In other words, we are more than our wheelchairs, prostheses, and guide dogs!

From Prodigy to Pathology

This is the idea that Rosemarie Garland-Thomson first wrote about in the 1990s. It suggests that starting from around the 1850s or so, ideas of disability changed in ginormous ways. Before this time, persons with impairments could be viewed with fascination and wonder; they were often thought of as mysterious and intriguing.

But when medicine as we know it today began to emerge in the Victorian era, our perception of impairment changed. Instead of seeing impairments as a mystery for the community to explore, they became the product of disease, injury, or defect. In other words, they were seen as medical pathologies that only doctors could understand and try to "cure."

So, basically, according to RGT, around 1900 or so, disabled people's "extraordinary" bodies made the jump from the freak show to the examining room. Upgrade or epic fail?


The normate is another of Garland-Thomson's most important ideas in disability studies. According to Garland-Thomson, the normate is this fantasy image of perfect bodily health, beauty, and functioning. It's an ideal that no one can possibly live up to and yet everyone still tries to reach.

It's because of this fiction of the normate (not to mention all the photoshopped glossies that help to perpetuate it) that we spend billions of dollars each year on beauty products and diet aids; it's why we kill ourselves in Zumba and CrossFit and P90X workouts.

And it's why we get so freaked out when we see somebody obviously incapable of living up to the normate ideal, like the guy with the terrible burn scars or the woman on crutches or the autistic boy who can't speak.

Kind of takes the pressure off to realize this fantasy is just, well, a fantasy. Even if it would be nice to look like those cover models… oh, wait. Those models don't even look like models.


According to disability studies, the supercrip is one of only two images of disability traditionally found in Western culture (the other is of the disabled person as the bitter and sinister villain). Basically, the "supercrip" is the hero; he is the inspiration for "normal" people to glom onto. He is impossibly good, talented, positive, and accomplished.

The supercrip is the one you see platform diving from his wheelchair and boogie boarding on his one leg. In this model, there are just two types of disabled people: you're either a Tiny Tim, a supercrip of moral virtue, or you're Captain Ahab, the vengeful cripple.


Basically, this is the idea that disabled people should be incorporated just like everybody else into "regular" society. Yeah, we don't get that this was even a question either, but there it is: some people don't think that disabled people should be hanging out with everyone else.

Mainstreaming usually refers to disabled children and their right to be educated in traditional classrooms alongside other children, but also relates to the idea that disabled people should have the same access as anyone else to public buildings, to employment, and to community involvement.


This is an idea described by another superstar in disability studies, Lennard Davis, which says that since the Enlightenment, Western society has been driven by a false ideal of what it means to be a person.

According to Davis, while the Enlightenment envisions "personhood" in the form of the autonomous (i.e., "independent") subject whose body can allow him to do whatever it is his rational mind tells him to do (and for the Enlightenment, it's almost always a "he"), the reality is that to be a person is always to be in some way dependent on other people.

There's simply no such thing, for Davis, as a completely independent, or autonomous, person. We all depend on and are depended on by other people. In other words, we are interdependent on and with other human beings.

This is important, according to Davis, because the sooner we recognize that we all need other people, the sooner we can stop thinking of disability as tragic or of caring for someone with a disability as a burden. This can lead us to be more accepting of disability in others and of the vulnerabilities in our own bodies. We can learn not to fear needing others and being needed and instead accept it as a part of being human.

In other words, you scratch our backs and we'll scratch yours. Or, we'll bring you chicken soup when you're feeling gross, and you'll do the same.


Basically, freakery and enfreakment simply refer to what the amazepants Shrek, after the even more amazepants David Crosby, calls "letting your freak flag fly." Essentially, this is about "embracing" a disabled identity, in whatever way each particular person chooses to define it for him or herself. It's about resisting the medical model and accepting—and even celebrating!—all the quirks and, yes, the "dysfunctions" of the impaired body.

In theoretical lingo, we would call it "embracing the non-normative" body, but we Shmoopers prefer the much more accurate "let your freak flag fly!" This is especially true since "freakery" is inspired by and draws from the freak shows of the 18th and 19th centuries, which, for all their bad press, made quite a few "freak performers" rich beyond their wildest dreams and gave them the kind of freedom and independence unimaginable to anyone except maybe princes and kings.

A smart freak show performer was kind of like the Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg of the time, except it wasn't technology they were inventing: it was their own bodies—or at least how they were displayed. And we thought Kimye were savvy self-promoters.

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